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Pakistan's tenuous gains on Taliban

Past cease-fires have allowed militants to regroup, but a recent deal in Bajaur may be more durable.

By Ben Arnoldy –Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Issam Ahmed –Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 2009

Test of Progress: Pakistani troops patrolled in Bajaur late last month. The Army has declared victory against the Taliban there, though some locals say it’s still unsafe.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters

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Delhi; and Peshawar, Pakistan

A pair of recent cease-fires in Pakistan has drawn many of the same critiques as past deals: They give militants legitimacy as well as an opportunity to regroup or relocate. But this time may be different. In the tribal agency of Bajaur, the military for the first time made significant headway before observing a truce.

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To build on these gains, counter terrorism analysts say Pakistan must use the lull in fighting to bring in as much security and development as possible to Bajaur and to Swat, where a separate cease-fire deal was made.

A test of progress will be if refugees in camps in Peshawar begin to head home. Despite the military’s declaration of victory against the Taliban in Bajaur late last month, many say it’s still too unsafe to return. Travelers and residents say the Taliban haven’t been flushed from two of nine districts there.

In Charmang, the military cannot even patrol,” says Wahab Khan, a local trader who traveled there last week, after the military accepted a Taliban-initiated cease-fire. "People are still afraid and know if they speak out against the Taliban, they can be hung."

Yetin Bajaur, for the first time, Pakistani forces made significant military headway before observing a truce. And they did so only after the Taliban declared a unilateral cease-fire.

This is a break from pacts past, including the one made in Swat late last month."All of these other deals have been essentially ratifying defeats on the ground," says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation based in Arlington, Va.

The United States has taken a dim view of Pakistan's propensity to negotiate rather than stick with a fight. It does not fit the American military's counterinsurgency mantra of "clear, hold, build," meaning: clear an area of the enemy, then hold it with security forces and truces to allow for reconstruction work.

Pakistan's military theory, called the "three Ds," reverses the order: dialogue, development, and deterrence.

"Instead of clearing the areas," the idea is to try for a negotiated settlement as "a very good starting point to then bring the militancy under control," says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

So far so good in Bajaur, he suggests, so long as there's now a way to keep the Taliban out and bring development in.

Can tribes keep security gains?

The military plan for holding the gains is through a tribal security structure that has been used since British times. Under the system,bargains are struck with tribes to keep the military and police out of the territory in exchange for self-policing that relies on tribe-based posses called lashkars.

In recent years, the Taliban had disrupted this age-old security arrangement by targeting tribal elders who control these groups.. Now,the military hopes to revive it, accepting a pledge last month from tribal elders in Bajaur to keep the region clear and allow the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force, to backstop the effort.